By Tami Shephard
Michael Kapetanich’s mother died when he was 12 years old, but he still hears her voice in his head. She guides him through the difficult parts of his life and provides inspiration for how to help others.
Lately, Kapetanich has been seeking his mother’s counsel often. As president of the Associated Students of Las Positas College, he reflects on the life lessons his mother taught him to lead others—and especially— to help others.
His road to LPC and to leadership has not been an easy one.
Kapetanich, whose parents were immigrants from Croatia, grew up in the rough projects of Oakland. Although his father wasn’t around much, his mother provided the stability and strong role model he needed to succeed.
He remembers her always working for her family, always striving to make ends meet. While she dreamed of better lives for her children, she would clean the house, baby sit other kids in the neighborhood and work other odd jobs.
On Christmas and birthdays Kapetanich and his two sisters always had gifts to open. Even today, it is hard for him to understand where she found the money—and her generosity was not limited to her own children. She would use her meager resources to help others in need.
Kapetanich remembers one time when a family moved in next door. They had nothing. No furniture, no food and probably not more than the clothes on their back. His mother took them items that his family had in short supply themselves. These are the values that helped to keep Kapetanich out of trouble.
When the wrong road seemed to be the better choice, he would hear his mother in his head.
“Wow, what would my mom say if she saw me hanging out with these people or doing this or that?” asked Kapetanich.
He remembers a quote that has stuck with him not because he believes it but because he feels is not true. The quote is: “You are a product of your environment.” He said, “I think that you are a product of your parenting skills.”
The grace and generosity of Kapetanich’s mother were set against a grim backdrop. His sister was murdered when he was eight years old. He does not remember too much about her, but what he does remember is how smart she was.
Then, when he was eight, his mom was diagnosed with colon cancer. He recalls the pain of watching his beloved and respected mother succumb to the cancer. When he was 12, she died, leaving both a void and strong foundation.
After his mother died, his surviving older sister took over. But, he recalls, she was not ready to take on all of the responsibilities of being the head of household. She was just a kid herself trying to find her own way.
He was also trying to find his way, and he did that by trying to find work. He said, “You will find that if you need help there are people willing to help.”
Kapetanich has a gift for finding work and for finding the support he needed. He said, “I think that I even got overpaid at times when people knew I needed the money.” Sometimes, people would help when there was no work.
But after his mother died, life was a struggle. For a while, while he was in high school, Kapetanich was homeless.
He had no one to guide him, but a move from Oakland to San Leandro led Kapetanich to the role models that he needed—his high school teachers.
One teacher in particular, Lyle Brown, became an important factor in Kapetanich’s life. Brown, an African American had to fight for all that he had accomplished in life. Brown became a translator in the service, then a neurosurgeon, and finally a high school teacher. He mentored Kapetanich and helped him to stay on the right path. Brown would stay late to teach him after class.
“He was a good guy,” Kapetanich said. “I think that those are the role models that we need in life.”
Kapetanich has taken the lessons from Brown and from his mother to heart. During Welcome Week, he spoke to the LPC faculty, encouraging teachers to “Be that teacher that we remember.”
He encouraged faculty to look beyond the surface.
“You never really know by looking at someone what they have and what they don’t have,” he said.
Kapetanich said he would be happy in life with, “Just a soccer ball and a fishing pole.”
Now, he said, “I just want to serve.”
When he hears others complain about traffic or what they don’t own, he thinks, “I met a prostitute in Russia that was rock bottom, sixty years old. She would love to trade places with you any day. So when you think your life is rough talk to her.”
He has a quote he recalls if he starts to complain, one that struck him when he was just 11 years old. “I complained about my shoes until I met a man who had no feet.”
Like his mother’s voice, those quotes resonate for him.
Since Kapetanich was elected president of the LPC student body in spring 2015, he has been trying to get the word out about programs that will help students succeed.
One of the programs Kapetanich has worked to pro- mote and improve is the Textbook Loaner Program, which allows the student to rent a book for $30 a semester. He doesn’t want students to have to pick the their classes based on whether or not they can afford the book.
He said the program is expanding beyond books, to include supplies, like graphing calculators.
Kapetanich also wants to work with the cafeteria to make nutri- tious food more affordable. He wants salad and sandwiches to be the same price as the pizza and milk more affordable then a soda.
He is working with Marsha Vernoga, who teaches nutrition at LPC, to start a nutrition club, and said Vernoga is a teacher whose actions speak louder than words.
Kapetanich would also like to make riding the bus to LPC more affordable, and his officers and he are working on a discount program.
Most of the programs that are important to Kapetanich are those that would make going to college easier on students who need a little more help.
He thinks that if college were a bit more affordable, more people would go.
“There are students on this campus that do not have a place to live or food to eat but they are here to get an education, to try and make a better life for them- selves and their families. You never know what the person next to you is going through so always treat others with respect,” he said. “The respect will come back to you.”
Kapetanich is pursuing a degree in International Development so he can go to other countries and try to meet the needs of people that are in need of help. He hopes to be the middleman who decides how the U.S. allocates money to other countries.